In the dog days of summer after the fresh-split firewood reeking with the sweet acerbity of tannin is stacked in a neat pile close by the house, we become crepuscular. Like certain amphibians striving to maintain a proper balance of body fluid and temperature, we venture forth into the out-of-doors only in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, leaving behind our artificial cocoons of refrigerated and dehumidified air. Even the cicadas are now out of sorts, droning about their business at mid-day when a pregnant cloud passes in front of the sun. In the first slow light of morning we sip strong coffee on the back porch facing east and the hardwood forest where the birdsong rises. The cardinal calls first; then the liquid flute of the wood thrush sounds from the understory.
Thoreau wrote of the wood thrush song, “Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.” This cousin of the bluebird is now tracking the declining hours of daylight with a mysterious sundial embedded deep within his brain. On a night in mid-August he will flush at a silent alarm and begin a nocturnal journey that will end for the season in the coastal lowlands of Central America. As for the cardinal, he suffers not from innate wanderlust and with his kind will still be around to serve as Christmas ornaments in the vanishing dogwood trees of Union Parish. With coffee cups almost empty, we are surprised this morning by the running-late possum that peeks over the edge of the porch on his routine check of the bird feeders. We all conclude that in spite of the bidding thrush and Thoreau’s doggerel to the contrary, it is time to seek shelter again until the evening respite.
Kelby Ouchley was a biologist and manager of national wildlife refuges for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for more than thirty years. He and his wife Amy live in the woods near Rocky Branch, Louisiana, in a cypress house surrounded by white oaks and black hickories. He is the author of Bayou-Diversity: Nature and People in the Louisiana Bayou Country.